The Seattle City Council passed legislation Monday aimed at preventing “economic evictions” in which landlords raise rents in order to avoid paying relocation assistance.
The Seattle City Council voted unanimously Monday to tighten what council members decried as a loophole in the city’s Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance.
Under the ordinance first enacted in 1990, landlords renovating or demolishing buildings must give 90 days’ notice to tenants and must pay relocation assistance to low-income households. They pay $1,670 per household and the city also pays $1,670.
But some property owners, council members said Monday, have been circumventing the ordinance’s requirements by carrying out what tenant advocates call “economic evictions” — using rent hikes to force out tenants rather than seeking legal evictions.
The red-hot housing market has made the practice more lucrative because landlords know they can fetch high rents for remodeled apartments, the council members said.
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The legislation approved Monday prohibits property owners from practicing economic evictions to avoid the relocation process. It will allow the city to penalize landlords who raise rents by a certain amount, see their tenants leave within a certain time-frame and then apply for permits to demolish or substantially renovate the homes.
“Landlords have been forcing low-income people from their homes without providing the time or resources necessary to help them relocate,” Councilmember Mike O’Brien said in a statement, adding, “There’s still so much more to do.”
The new legislation won’t prohibit property owners from hiking rents in cases where no substantial renovations are made. Seattle doesn’t have the authority to restrict such increases directly, no matter how dramatic they are, because a 1981 state law bans cities from regulating rents.
The council last month passed a resolution instructing the city’s lobbyists in Olympia to push the state Legislature for a repeal of that ban.
Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata have been advocating for Seattle to enact some form of rent stabilization or rent control that would limit increases.
Sawant praised Monday’s legislation before voting for it but said she believes the city needs rent control.
She was one of several council members Monday who cited a shockingly rundown apartment building in South Seattle in their statements about the loophole-tightening legislation.
She and Councilmember Nick Licata held a news conference at 6511 Rainier Ave. S. last Thursday to draw attention to the situation there.
The building’s tenants have been told their rents are increasing by hundreds of dollars this month even though their homes have heat and water problems, broken windows and cabinets, cockroaches and rodents, water damage and mold. One single mother’s rent is increasing from $550 to $1,650 per month.
“The tenants are facing increasing rents … at a property swimming in unbelievable housing-code violations,” Sawant said, calling the building’s owner a slumlord and announcing a Wednesday morning rally outside his company’s office in Columbia City.
Carl Haglund, who bought the building this past summer, praised Monday’s legislation and said he supports the city’s relocation-assistance requirements.
Haglund said those requirements shouldn’t apply to 6511 Rainier Ave. S., however, because the rents there have been kept so far below market rates and because many tenants there are living with multiple people not listed on their leases.
“We need to raise the rents to begin to provide services and maintain the building properly,” Haglund said, adding, “These are not traditional-sized families. They have many, many people living in the units. In one unit, there must be three families.”
Haglund said he didn’t know how bad conditions at the property were when he bought it.
Hana Alicic, an organizer with the Tenants Union of Washington, said the tenants have been told to not expect renovations in return for the higher rents.
The Seattle Department of Planning and Development inspected 11 of the building’s 13 units Friday and found three without heat and a number with electrical problems, peeling paint, inadequate ventilation and other issues, spokeswoman Wendy Shark said.
The department posted an emergency order that the heat be fixed by Tuesday at noon and is preparing a notice of violation on the other issues, Shark said.
Samira Meshalla, 23, who spoke to the council before Monday’s vote, said she believes the property owner would rather rent to highly paid tech workers. She and many other tenants are East African immigrants.
“They say to us, ‘You guys are immigrant people. You don’t know anything. We need in here the Amazon people, the Microsoft people,’ ” Meshalla said. “That’s not fair.”
O’Brien said he believes most landlords play by the rules. The new legislation is aimed at those who don’t, he said.